I can’t imagine how it would have felt to be around when Kate Bush’s albums were first being released and then listening to The Dreaming for the first time. For all the accolades and love that came her way, Bush had the reputation as the waif of English pop music (so is the image of many an affectionate parody). So it must have been shock to have heard a record as layered, as forceful, as – in Kate Bush’s own words – mad as this record. There may have been some form of clue to listeners in the album though, which had a very specific request: “this album was mixed to be played loud.”
The Dreaming at the time of its release was seen as a commercial failure (reportedly it was an album EMI almost refused to release). It may have charted at third and been the first album to get proper recognition in the States – somewhat indicating that this was an album first and a collection of singles last – but still songs like “There Goes a Tenner” didn’t even chart. People just didn’t know what to make of the record. Over 33 years however that consensus has changed; acts as diverse as Bjork, Johnny Rotten and Big Boi from Outkast have called it influential to their work, many critics have described this work as an overlooked masterwork, and some perhaps Kate Bush’s best work. And whilst the next record on this list will likely always be my favourite, this album always fluctuates with Hounds of Love as to what I consider the best Kate Bush record, is still another masterpiece in a line of many others.
Music wise this album is the most dramatic of her work, a theatrical, blasting force of nature from the first drum hits of “Sat in Your Lap” to the final frightening brays of “Get of My House;” this is probably Kate Bush’s most consistent album as a result. She produced this album by herself, and took the sampling, layers and bizarre instrumentation of Never for Ever to their absolute breaking point. But unlike Lionheart, where the overproduction sometimes took away from the song craft, here the production is in the song craft. Take the title track, a screed against the poor treatment of the Australian Aborigines, with its sampled sounds of cars and animal sounds (the latter provided by animal impersonator Percy Edwards), the layered digeridoos (provided by musician/scumbag Rolf Harris) and the occasionally processed vocals all adding to this march of unnecessary destruction.
This energy can be found on every song in the album, to the point where in many a listen you cannot be certain what sound is coming from what instrument. Such is the case in the wall-of-sound cacophony of the Celtic styled “Night of the Swallows,” or when that processed vocal sound is fed into the sheer abrasive noises of “Leave it Open”. This all is in turn gives into Kate’s extraordinary performance skills, like in the way her voice on “Sat in Your Lap” fluctuates between the calm, the shrieking and the operatic, almost getting lost midst of the complex beat and proving both Bush’s vocal talents and fitting into the theme of the existential dread and breakdown that comes from too much knowledge (partaaaay!). And on what is my favourite song on the album “Pull out the Pin,” Kate’s screams of
“I am alive” “I love life” to the sound of helicopter blades and almost atonal guitar riffs is enough to chill one to the bone.
The lyrics of this album deal so much with a lack of control – again tying into the album’s sound – or emotional and intellectual escape. The figurative key to understanding the record’s perspective is in “Houdini”, the song that inspired the literal key in Kate Bush’s mouth on the album cover. The theatricality of being a magician is in that performance, but so is the unique female perspective and fluctuation between affection and secret angry and bitter desires. And whilst The Sensual World may be explicitly inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses, the way points of view break down on many her songs recall that influence, whether that be the knowledge in “Sat in Your Lap” disintegrating into a series of ho-ho-ho’s; the move towards a dream sequence in the bouncy “There Goes a Tenner” (which has the qualities of a song that could be found in some bizarre musical). And the final horrors of the extraordinary “Get Out of My House” feel inspired more by a combination of Pinocchio and the surrealist elements of the “Circe” chapter than what is apparently the main influence of this song, The Shining (Oh Stephen King, will no other artist ever adapt your book faithfully?)
There is so much I know I could write about. I could talk about how the dream-like waltz of “Suspended in Gaffa,” the closest thing this album gets to a simple single despite the complexities to still be found in the way Bush mixes her vocals. I could also discuss how mixing such different cultural style from the Celtic and Australian gives this album the feeling on its own plane of existence (like a dream), or how this is the closest Kate Bush comes to her peers Bowie and Genesis in terms of art and progressive rock (as one part of this great BBC documentary on Kate Bush points out, she is in many ways one of the great artists of progressive rock).
But in the end I know that I can’t fit everything about this record into a thousand or so words. Years of listening and I’m still finding new sounds and textures in this album that I didn’t previous hear before. The Dreaming may have taken a while to be recognised, but now it is hard not to recognise the album as another great work in a series of great works, and a substantial case for it being the best. Still, the lack of response could have spelt disaster for Bush’s project going forward. Instead she waited for three years, regrouped, and gave us her most well-known and cherished work…
What did you think though?
Kate Bush Album Rankings
- The Dreaming
- Never for Ever
- The Kick Inside
Postscript: Happy Birthday Kate Bush!